… Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and biologist who teaches at Yeshiva University, was one of the leading spokesmen against the Oslo Accords. In a long phone conversation, Tendler said that for several weeks he has been trying to enlist Orthodox rabbis and organizations for the struggle against the evacuation. He says that not only is he encountering refusal and evasion - but many are accusing him of interfering in Israeli politics.
Tendler, who has 53 grandchildren and great-grandchildren living in Israel, some in settlements, participated in a visit to Gush Katif organized by Moskowitz. He says he speaks out everywhere, but nobody is listening, and he tells his rabbinical colleagues that even the Shin Bet security services and Israel Defense Forces commanders say that after the disengagement the terrorism will resume.
Tendler says that U.S. Orthodox rabbis and organizations are not willing to join a public struggle against the evacuation, and points out that all of a sudden, the religious organizations have decided that a protest against uprooting Jews from their homes is not politically correct.
Tendler recently turned to the leaders of Young Israel, a mainstream Orthodox organization that includes dozens of synagogues in North America, and suggested that they use their influence to organize a protest march in Washington against the disengagement. He says that with the help of other organizations, Young Israel could enlist 50,000 Jews for such a march, but that they ignored his suggestion, not even bothering to reply to it.
The head of Young Israel, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, says in response that he doesn't recall such a request by Tendler. Lerner confirms that Orthodox rabbis are refraining from openly opposing the disengagement.
Lerner adds that the silence of the rabbis reflects "fatigue and confusion." He says that people are simply tired and confused, and don't understand exactly what's going on. Sharon was the "father of the settlements," and suddenly he is uprooting them, he says.
Lerner is trying to enlist support for Gush Katif settlers outside the Orthodox organizations. He says that synagogues and other bodies in the U.S. raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the buses that transported the thousands of Israelis who visited Gush Katif during Pesach.
Tendler is particularly angry at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), which is considered the most influential Orthodox organization there. He says the OU is has been deliberately refraining from expressing an opinion on the disengagement. A few weeks ago, the organization initiated a videoconference with the head of the Disengagement Administration, Yonatan Bassi, with the participation of Orthodox rabbis and activists.
"The discussion was an embarrassing failure," says one rabbi who participated in the meeting.
OU president Steve Savitsky and his deputy, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Weinreb, say they have reservations about the disengagement plan and are very concerned about the planned evacuation of settlements and the uprooting of thousands of Jews. But they say that their organization is adhering to its long-standing policy of supporting official positions of the Israeli government.
Savitsky says that senior Israeli officials told him that Israel will not implement the road map peace plan before the Palestinian terrorist organizations are dismantled. He admits that the OU is upset about the disengagement, but says they support the government and the prime minister.
Rabbi Shraga Schoenfeld, one of the most well-known and admired rabbis in New York, has serious complaints about his colleagues. He says that in general, U.S. Orthodox rabbis are "paralyzed." He says that in private conversation, rabbis express opposition to the uprooting of settlements, but that his attempts to organize a public protest have been fruitless. He says that the rabbis are afraid to speak out, and adds that Sharon has apparently "bewitched" them.
Schoenfeld is the former head of the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA), the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in North America. Recently, he says, he suggested to the heads of the RCA that they publish a statement protesting against the uprooting of settlements and the evacuation of settlers. He says that the proposal was rejected firmly and out of hand. The heads of the organization told him that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate had refrained from taking an official stand against the disengagement.
Recently, he turned to the leaders of Agudath Israel in America, an ultra-Orthodox organization, and tried to convince them to publish a protest against the disengagement. They replied, he says, that educational issues are more important to them than the evacuation of Gush Katif.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, former chair of the New York Board of Rabbis, says that the passivity of local rabbis on the issue is to a great extent the result of lessons they learned from the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He says that they discovered that words and declarations can be very dangerous. Schneier says that one of the reasons why rabbis are afraid of declarations against the evacuation of Gush Katif and refrain from criticism of Sharon is that the disengagement plan is supported by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Quite a number of rabbis are angry about the support of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the U.S. Jewish umbrella organization, for the disengagement. The head of the conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, is Orthodox.
"I don't understand what happened to the Presidents Conference," says one rabbi. "I don't recall that the conference supported the Oslo Accords. But it decided to support a plan that is worse and more serious than the Oslo Accords."
Rabbis who were interviewed for this article expressed a strong desire for authoritative spiritual leadership; in their opinion, its absence has created an oppressive vacuum. "There is no Orthodox rabbi in America today who is accepted by most of his colleagues and who is capable of ordering that a Torah scroll be taken out into a city street as a step of protest and sorrow," says a veteran New York rabbi, who was one of the main spokesmen against the Oslo Accords.
It is no wonder that some of the interviewees long for the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who dictated priorities and patterns of response on current issues to much of U.S. Orthodox Jewry, for example, on the question of who is a Jew.
"Since the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, there is nobody to lead a public debate on an issue that involves Israeli security," one of the rabbis said.
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